Kai Bird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer and director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the City University of New York. His most recent book is “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames.”
I have many problems with this book, beginning with its lurid title, “Surprise, Kill, Vanish.” Neither do I like the author’s sycophantic take on the CIA, nor her cavalier accounts of CIA targeted killings. I am uncomfortable with her casual approval of all things macho in the world of paramilitary warfare. Nor do I like the author’s pretense that she has written a biography when the hero of her narrative makes only fleeting appearances. I’m annoyed by the sloppy research and the breathless quality of her writing. And I hate the fact that the author, and evidently her publisher, thinks all this is okay because, well, it is an exciting story about a real-life Rambo character.
Annie Jacobsen has a history of publishing sensational, conspiracy-driven books that sell well. Her topics — Nazi scientists, UFOs, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the history of government-financed investigations of the paranormal — must appeal to some readers’ desire for astounding revelations. The reviews have been decidedly mixed. Dick Teresi critically reviewed Jacobsen’s “Phenomena,” a silly book about the paranormal, and archly observed that “Jacobsen’s sources should have used mind control to get her a more receptive [New York] Times reviewer.” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Rhodes called one of her books (“Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base”) an “error-ridden job of reporting” and accused her of being “at a minimum extraordinarily gullible or journalistically incompetent.” Rhodes was being gentle. This is a book in which she claims that an unidentified flying object cited in 1948 was actually a flying saucer sent by Joseph Stalin and flown by mutant, bug-eyed teenagers created by the notorious Nazi death camp doctor Josef Mengele. Jacobsen later refused to name her sole source for this cockamamie story and not-so-cleverly insisted, “I believe that what the source told me is true, to him.”
You may ask if “Surprise, Kill, Vanish” is really that bad. Yes, it is. You may ask if your reviewer is a grouch. No, not after my first morning espresso, and as a biographer myself, I know how hard it is to write biography, so I’m appalled that I find myself having to write a nasty review. You may ask if I have a bias toward the CIA. Well, my last book was a biography of a CIA officer, and by all accounts, my sources in the agency admired my admiring take on the late intelligence officer Robert Ames. But yes, I think one reason I so dislike Jacobsen’s non-biographical alleged biography of the CIA’s Billy Waugh is that her celebration of his career as a paramilitary operative denigrates the art of collecting human intelligence, something that was once respected in the agency.
I’ll return to this theme in a moment, but first let me shed a little light on a few of the egregious errors, large and small, in this awful book:
• John F. Kennedy was not “a young lieutenant colonel” during World War II. He was a lieutenant in the Navy.
• Writing about the Green Beret affair of 1969, Jacobsen misidentifies Capt. Robert F. Marasco as a “CIA employee.” According to Jeff Stein, the author of the definitive 1992 book on the case, “A Murder in Wartime,” Marasco was never a CIA officer but served in Army counterintelligence.
• Jacobsen writes that “Mossad legend has it that in 1948 . . . the Vatican asked Israel to hold a mock trial of Jesus and reverse the original biblical death verdict.” Nice legend, but totally ridiculous.
• Henry Kissinger did not make a deal with Yasser Arafat in 1973 to use Ali Hassan Salameh as “a clandestine asset.” That relationship with Salameh began in 1969, and Kissinger was merely made aware of it by CIA Director Richard Helms.
• Jacobsen refers to an “Agency handler, code-named Charles Waverly” — apparently unaware that Waverly was merely an italicized alias I used in my book to protect a source, not an agency code-name.
• Kissinger’s use of back-channel intelligence from Salameh had nothing to do with his “proximity” to the Watergate scandal.
• Salameh never “worked for the CIA.” Instead, he repeatedly refused payment or recruitment on any terms.
• Jacobsen falsely asserts that after the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing, “one of his [Robert Ames’s] hands was found floating a mile out at sea, his wedding band still on his ring finger.” I categorically refuted this detail in “The Good Spy,” a book Jacobsen claims to have read.
Oh well, inevitably, errors creep into every book. My real problem with this work is the author’s underlying themes. To this end, she uses Waugh’s career to lionize paramilitary operations and targeted killings. The Israelis do it so well, so why can’t we follow in the celebrated footsteps of the Mossad? She claims that Waugh, now 90 years old, is “one of the oldest longest-serving covert-action operators in the United States.” Jacobsen draws on Waugh’s 2004 memoir for much of his story, but she also interviewed Waugh for “several hundred hours” and exchanged more than 1,300 emails with him. In her storytelling, Waugh is ubiquitous. He first appears on the battlefield as a 21-year-old paratrooper in the Korean War. “I wanted to see combat,” he tells Jacobsen. “To be brave under fire.”
Later, he’s serving with the Special Forces in Vietnam. In Saigon, he claims to have trained President Ngo Dinh Diem’s soldiers in “everything from sabotage and assassination, to evade and escape.” In 1965, approaching an enemy camp, Waugh stumbles upon two North Vietnamese cooks gathering firewood. “As the man reached for the pistol on his hip, Waugh took a swift step forward, grabbed him around the shoulders, and pushed his knife into the man’s throat. The woman came at him with a stick. Waugh slit her throat and set her body down on the jungle floor. All was quiet again.” You get the picture: Both Waugh and his biographer love a little blood and gore.
Waugh has a part here and there in all the Cold War battlefields from Cuba to the Middle East. His last CIA mission, at the age of 82, is in the autumn of 2011, when he is sent to make contact in Libya with some of Moammar Gaddafi’s former generals. We’re not told why, but if an 82-year-old officer was the best the CIA could muster, perhaps this explains some of the blowback chaos we see in Libya today.
In a trip down memory lane, Jacobsen accompanied Waugh back to Vietnam. At one point, they find themselves chatting amiably in Hanoi with Vo Dien Bien, the son of Vo Nguyen Giap — the famed North Vietnamese general who defeated the French and the Americans. “I was on a Green Light team that trained in Okinawa,” Waugh volunteers to his host. “We were considering parachuting a SADM nuclear device into Vietnam.” Waugh was referring to a special atomic demolition munition (SADM), usually a lightweight W54 tactical warhead small enough to be carried in a backpack.
Taken aback by this claim, Dien Bien politely responds, “The Americans would never use nuclear weapons against” Vietnam.
“Not true,” insists Waugh. “I was on the team. We were going to drop it on the Mu Gia Pass. I wrote up the recommendation.”
Jacobsen claims that Waugh’s memory is correct and that U.S. authorities actually considered using tactical nuclear weapons to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But her footnote cites a 1967 intelligence report that contradicts Waugh’s assertion. The report explores the many military impracticalities and then, thankfully, concludes, “In sum, the political effects of U.S. first use of TNW [tactical nuclear weapons] in Vietnam would be uniformly bad and could be catastrophic.”
But our intrepid Billy Waugh, well, he was always ready to parachute anywhere with a TNW strapped to his back. What a man!
In Jacobsen’s epilogue, she has dinner at an Irish pub with Cofer Black, former director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. “You’ll only ever know a hundredth of the things Billy accomplished for us,” Black tells her “cryptically.”
Well, count me a skeptic. In my opinion , Black, Waugh and the legions of covert-action partisans in the CIA have destroyed the agency’s culture of true intelligence collection. Thomas Powers, the great biographer of the late CIA director Richard Helms, once wrote of the art of intelligence: “There was no deep trick to it. You had to want to know, you had to do a lot of homework, and you had to listen.” Men like Waugh are not listeners, they’re just boys with dangerous toys. And when she’s not pretending to be a biographer, Jacobsen writes TV scripts for shows like “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” — which explains a lot about this unfortunate book.
By Annie Jacobsen
Little, Brown. 544 pp. $30